In 2007, I was selected to attend training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to become a Civil Affairs Specialist (38B). My family and I moved from Fort Hood, Texas to North Carolina in December of 2007 so that I could begin the training in January of 2008. Civil Affairs falls under the umbrella of Special Operations, but was only a couple of years old as an actual Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). This meant that the training requirements for the MOS were still being worked out. We were repeatedly told, however, that Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Level C (SERE-C) was going to be a requirement at some point in the future. Well, I had one emotion that welled up every time I thought about SERE: Fear.
I had not heard a lot of stories about SERE school, but the stories I had heard did not make it sound like a place that I wanted to go to. Because of these stories, I worked to avoid going to the school, and I was successful until April of 2012. I was told that SERE was going to be part of the promotion criteria for Civil Affairs Specialists, and since I was an E-7 coming up on my first look for E-8, I decided that I better suck it up and go to Fort Rucker. Fort Rucker, Alabama, is where the Army trains its aviators, and is one of two locations where the Army teaches SERE-C (the other is Fort Bragg).
Before I continue, you need to understand that part of SERE training is the signing of a non-disclosure agreement. This means that there are certain things that I cannot mention at all, and there are certain things that I can only talk about in generalities. This is primarily for the benefit of those individuals who will be attending the course later. There are parts of the training that if known ahead of time are significantly less effective. We also had to sign a statement saying that we would not utilize our training against law enforcement which I found incredibly cool even though I have never had a negative experience with law enforcement and don’t plan to.
I arrived on a Sunday with three other soldiers from my battalion at Fort Hood. We wandered around Fort Rucker for the day because school did not officially start until the following day. Monday started at 0300 where we turned in our cellphones (that is right, no outside communication for three weeks), got our room assignments, and had a layout. (SERE Tip: Take everything that is on the packing list and do not take anything that is not on the packing list. Also, a butt pack and a CamelBak pack with extra pockets are both VERY helpful.) We then had breakfast and started the worst two days of the course. We spent two entire days doing the following: Breakfast, death by PowerPoint, lunch, death by PowerPoint, dinner, death by PowerPoint, bed. I will leave the subjects that we covered unsaid as some of them fall into the non-disclosure area, but I think that you get the idea of the torture that we were forced to endure for two whole days. I will say that this training covered the subjects of Survival, Evasion, and Escape. To me, this was much worse than the Resistance training that came later in the course.
After the first two days of agony, we started to get some hands-on training which is when the fun started. A lot of the information that we endured the previous two days became useful and interesting when we started to put it into practice. We practiced in the classroom, we practiced at the barracks, and we eventually got the opportunity to practice out in the woods of southern Alabama. We also got to spend one day at the range doing Close Quarters Marksmanship (CQM). There was nothing fancy about this practice. It was the same stuff that I had been doing for years in the units that I was in, but any day at the range is a good day. Plus, CQM is always a lot of fun. After all this practice, I felt like a mix between Bear Grylls, Houdini, and a Delta Force Operator. (SERE Tip: Learn everything you can and practice everything they teach you. There is a reason behind everything in the course.)
When you spend time out in the woods, you are pretty much fending for yourself when it comes to food. You will occasionally be provided something to eat or drink by the “locals” that you meet, but it is a very small amount if you get anything at all. You will be hungry. You will be tired. Just deal with it. (SERE Tip: Eat as healthy as possible when you eat in the chow hall. Avoid the sweets. This will help you to not feel as hungry when you are out in the woods eating local plants and whatever you can catch.)
After running around the woods for a few days trying not to get caught (we did get caught once — not fun!), you will get to the core of SERE-C, a place I fondly call Camp Slappy. Unlike a lot of people, I really enjoyed this part of the training, and I am going to tell you how I did it. First (SERE Tip), I realized that I was in a school. This is a school where I am meant to learn and the instructors are there to teach. Plus, I knew that all the “fun” would eventually end. Second (SERE Tip), I realized that I had absolutely no control over what they did to me physically, but I had complete control over my mind. I took solace in using my training when dealing with the instructors, and I played games when I was being left alone. I gave complete control to the instructors physically and just enjoyed the ride. I also realized why Yoko Ono never became a mainstream recording artist. You will realize why, too. Third (SERE Tip), I discovered that the thought of being roughly physically handled was WAY worse than the reality. (SERE Tip: The instructors use physical means to show the student that they are doing something wrong. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a lot of correction, then figure out what you are doing wrong. Remember your training.)
I had such a great time in the course that I would have restarted the next day if they would have let me keep my cellphone and skip the first two days of death by PowerPoint, but that is not the way that things work. I headed back to Fort Hood to a wife who was worried sick. My battalion commander had told her all kinds of SERE-C horror stories where he had come back all messed up in the head. It took me several hours to convince her that I was fine, and that I had not been brainwashed. (SERE Tip: Spend time with your spouse after you get back. They have missed you for three weeks without communication, and they have probably been worried sick about what was happening to you thanks to all the horror stories about the school.)
I highly suggest that everyone go to SERE-C. Out of all the Army, and non-Army, schools that I got to go to during my 21 years, SERE-C was the absolute best. Hands down. Final SERE Tip: The lower your rank the more fun you will have. I was fortunate in that I was the second highest enlisted, so I was not singled out during my time at Camp Slappy. SERE is a place where you do not want to be the highest ranking enlisted or officer, but if you find yourself in that position, then embrace your responsibilities and rock on. Let me say this one more time: Go to SERE-C, and if you remember my tips, then you will have a great experience. Also, if you are in a leadership position in your unit, but find yourself without responsibilities in SERE, then you really do have the chance for a three-week vacation in the woods of lower Alabama!
Josh Davis is a retired U.S. Army First Sergeant. He is Ranger qualified, Airborne qualified, and SERE-C qualified. He is the recipient of the Expert Infantryman Badge, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star, and numerous foreign jump wings. He has a B.A. in Religion from American Military University and a M.A. in Human Services Counseling with a Life Coaching cognate from Liberty University. He lives with his wife and three kids in Buford, GA where he works as a freelance writer and is a barbering student.